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The Conti eBike System uses electric motors to help car drivers extend their mobility in congested urban environments. 

Automakers and suppliers crank up their interest in electric bikes

Automakers and Tier 1s are expanding their view of transportation and its potential profit centers. They're rolling out battery-powered electric bicycles that let drivers park cars in less congested areas and pedal the remaining distances. Electric motors provide boosts so cyclists aren’t tired and sweaty when they reach their destinations.

Continental Automotive recently demonstrated its Conti eBike System, which is being offered to automotive OEMs and bicycle manufacturers. Developers are leveraging experience gained in electric powertrain development, among other technologies. The company is bullish about its role in powered bicycles.

“There are a lot possible synergies within the Continental corporation taking advantage of other transportation and mobility solutions and adapting them to bicycles/e-bikes,” said Horst Walter, the company's Benchmark Drives Director. “With this vision, we feel confident in becoming a leading supplier of innovative drive solutions in the bicycle industry.”

Automotive OEMs are quickly moving into this market. Ford, whose founder once worried that the early U.S. motorcycle industry would threaten his nascent Model T, has unveiled two E-bikes and detailed an additional concept model. Audi recently discussed a concept e-bike. Daimler’s Smart is offering a bike with a 35-N·m (25 lb·ft) motor and an 8.8-A·h battery.

The moves into the two-wheeler realm come as the auto industry is focusing more on multimodal transportation. For example, the Ford Smart Mobility plan includes public transportation as well as e-bikes and ride sharing. General Motors recently invested $500 million into Lyft and FCA has teamed up with Enjoy, an Italian ride-sharing company. Together, the strategic moves focus on providing mobility that doesn’t directly involve a vehicle purchased for use by the driver.

Pedal electric cycles, also known as "pedelecs," are gaining popularity in congested cities and from green-mobility advocates. E-bikes can travel at speeds determined by regional laws, often going up to 25 mph (40 km/h). Riders don’t have to pedal hard to reach those speeds.

The central motor on Continental’s eBike System has a nominal power output of 250 W and a maximum torque of 90 N·m (66 lb·ft). Batteries (lithium-ion is favored) can be configured to fit into the bike's frame tubing or packaged in external modules. Battery capacities range from 405 to 612 W·h, depending on size.

While automotive companies ramp up their programs, bicycle suppliers and startups are also stepping up. Partnerships are quite important in this nascent market; none of the automakers thus far have indicated they intend to set up bike-manufacturing operations. Ford has linked up with electric bike specialists Pedego, Smart buys motors from BionX and Continental has partnered with a number of bicycle manufacturers.

“Our main target group are bicycle OEMs,” Walter said. “But we are also in contact with car manufacturers to support them in further developing their e-bike concepts and transform them into real e-bike models.”

Some analysts feel that bicycle specialists may be able to reduce costs more than those who come from the automotive industry. Most electric-assist bikes currently retail from roughly $1000 to $5000—the price range of many popular automotive comfort and convenience options.

“The auto OEMs should partner with existing bicycle companies for branding and bike technology,” said Mark Fitzgerald, Associate Director of Strategy Analytics’ Automotive Practice. “OEMs and suppliers may have some superior battery tech but these batteries tend to be expensive.”

Automotive suppliers feel they can compete in this field. They can leverage higher volumes than most bicycle manufacturers, and they have global sourcing and sales arrangements.

“While synergies within the corporation need to be built up, the product market segment has been set up individually from other Continental divisions to correspond to the specific market requirements of the bicycle industry,” Walter said.

A Navigant Research study predicted that most e-bike shipments will be in Western Europe and Asia. The large Chinese market was around 28 million e-bicycles in 2013. It’s expected to reach 33 million in 2020. In Western Europe, sales are expected to move from 1 million units in 2013 to 1.9 million in 2020.

North American sales are growing at a faster clip than many regions, but remain substantially below those in Asian countries excluding China, according to Navigant.

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